In Denmark, Rene Redzepi and the staff at Noma aren’t on the phone sourcing expensive ingredients for the world’s so-called best restaurant from elite vegetable vendors. No, the chefs and their crew are out in the field searching for weeds. Literally. Noma’s website reads, “We comb the countryside for berries and herbs that others would not bother with.”
We’re not all going to be Rene Redzepi, but increasingly, chefs and home cooks are bothering with these “weeds,” finding sources of inspiration in places as unlikely as their backyards. The growing DIY food trend (think canning and home brewing) combined with health concerns about pesticides has spurred adventurous eaters and chefs to seek out their own greens — the less common, the better. Wild plants like dandelion greens, chickweed, purslane, fiddelheads, ramps and sweet potato vines are making appearances on menus across the country.
Several of these plants have enjoyed cult-like devotion from chefs for years — most notably ramps (a.k.a. wild leeks). Due to their blink-of-an-eye growing season (three to five weeks in early spring), ramps have become a cherished ingredient for seasonal chefs who become frenzied at the mere mention of them. Fiddleheads, the uncurled fern tip, command a similar devotion, with just a two-week span.
Not all wild plants impose such time constraints on foraging enthusiasts. It depends on where you live, but generally in the U.S. dandelion greens and purslane have a two-month growing season, and chickweed can be found all year long. You may recognize many of these delicacies (especially purslane) as the weeds overrunning your lawn. Most wild greens are cooked much like greens you would buy in the supermarket (it’s pretty hard to go wrong by sautéing them with garlic), while eaten raw, many make a flavorful salad base.
Although you could see foraging’s popularity as a recent surge (a quick web search will bring up an abundance of books on urban foraging published in the last year, not to mention the growing number of foraging apps and tours available), many foragers have been seeking out wild plants for decades. John Kallas, director of Wild Food Adventures, began researching edible wild plants in the 1970s and for a brief period, only consumed vegetables that he gathered himself. He attributes the current fascination with foraging to a renewed interest in the back-to-the-Earth movement. “In the ’60s [the movement] was very strong and I think we ebb and flow out of it now,” says Kallas.
Similarly, Connie Green, author of the 2010 foraging handbook The Wild Table, has been gathering wild plants for decades. She recalls when dandelion greens were widely available in supermarkets. As Green explains, most of our wild plants are indigenous to Europe and were brought over by the original pioneers because they were greatly admired for their culinary and medicinal properties. But, for one reason or another, their properties were eventually overlooked. Green explains, “Time went on and people forgot them. More people are interested in complex-tasting greens again. These are strong flavors that may not have been welcomed in the 1950s American palate.”
More adventurous 21st century palates make way for chefs to become more creative with their cuisine. Chef Hadley Schmitt of Northern Spy in Manhattan’s East Village experiments with wild flowers like lady’s thumb and even pine and juniper branches (which he uses when smoking duck). But when it comes to wild plants, subtlety is key, as chefs must walk a fine line between showcasing unusual ingredients and not going over the top.
While it may seem like wild greens are an increasingly popular item on menus, Northern Spy’s owner, Christophe Hille, maintains that wild plants are still relatively obscure in restaurants. He says, “I think it’s [the wild plant movement] growing, but very slowly because of the time commitments. I’ve been reading about it a bunch but I haven’t actually seen it all that much.”
The issue of time isn’t the only challenge with foraging — finding a suitable location and making sure you’re picking safe plants can prove daunting for novices. If you’re lucky enough to have a lawn, that’s a good place to start, but for city dwellers, it’s important to keep informed about where foraging is and isn’t legal. In July of last year, New York City park officials cracked down on foraging which is illegal in all state parks, though not often enforced. Safety is the greater issue, and it’s advisable that beginners stick to easily recognizable plants like dandelion greens and that anyone going out for the first time consult with experienced gatherers.
Whether it’s the high price of food, the DIY trend, the rising popularity of farmers markets or the back-to-the-Earth movement arousing interest, there’s no denying that wild plants are increasingly attractive to today’s diners. And when it comes to playing a part in your local food system, this a perfect way to do it. As Connie Green puts it, “You can’t get more involved than picking it yourself.”
Related: Recipe: Stir-Fried Dandelion Greens